Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, February 6, 2016

False Legend: The 66-lb. Pack at the Somme

All great events generate legends that magnify or distort the actual proceedings, and that is certainly true of the Battle of the Somme.  One of these involves the shoulder pack the British infantryman had to carry into battle as he went over the top and across no-man's-land.

Many sources, including the British Official History, suggest that soldiers who attacked on 1 July 1916 carried a pack weighing over 66 lbs (30kg).  Contemporary records, film, and photographs show that this was not the case.

Above, British infantrymen give a helping hand to wounded German prisoners near la Boisselle on 3 July 1916.  They are both wearing their equipment in "fighting order."  One has an additional bandoleer of ammunition, and each has an anti-gas PH (phenate hexamine) helmet in a small bag hung at the front.

If the weight carried by the soldiers affected their progress across no man’s land the men of 36th Ulster Division would not have been able to rush the Schwaben Redoubt, and General Congreve’s XIII Corps, which achieved considerable success in the southern part of the line, would surely have been hampered as much as the soldiers in the unsuccessful attacks further north.

Source:  Imperial War Museum


  1. I've always been a tiny bit suspicious of this photo. The German taking a drink appears to have a wounded leg, yet has been able to walk far enough that they have apparently left behind any sort of war damaged countryside. Not conclusive, I admit ... but so many war photographs are posed and/or contrived that I can't help that niggling doubt. Can anyone discredit my suspicions?

  2. The British soldier on the left and the German next to him can't be much more than 5 feet tall, judging from the known length of the Enfield rifle with bayonet.

  3. I have read accounts that many men went over with thirty or so pounds of kit. However the weight of those in support, i.e. follow on waves after the assault waves had done their bit, carried wire, posts, shovels, picks, sandbags, extra ammunition, wire for communications may have carried the sixty pound weights. I share Brian's suspicion that it is contrived; if not, they are well behind the lines. The attack on the northern side failed for a number of reasons, uncut wire the major one. As for the Ulster Division, the division history states that the assault waves had actually formed in No Man's Land and when the barrage lifted, they charged catching the Germans still in their dugouts or just exiting them. Their attempts to advance on the second objectives failed. Many accounts state that the Germans barraged No Man's Land to prevent reinforcements following on. This made the task of checking the attack as the assault troops began to run out of ammunition and bombs.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Fascinating reading all in their own way. Margaret